I’d been waiting in all day for the postman to call. The book I needed was urgent for the research paper. When he arrived, it was not there, much to my disappointment. Instead, in an envelope addressed to me by hand, was a small lined postcard, the sort used for indexing, with a cryptic, handwritten message: –
‘I’m not dead. Meet me Tuesday night at 8 at our old haunt.’
I’d arrived back in my home town late on Sunday to see off my old friend Jim Barnes. We went right back to junior school and despite our being estranged for so many years, I felt quite a pang of sadness as I walked up the path to the crematorium. There were no other faces I knew and after some consideration, I sat on the family side. As the heavy red curtains pulled across that one final time, I admit that I shed a tear. Not so much for Jim, but more as an acknowledgement to my own mortality, about which I had been thinking more and more often recently.
Our old haunt was a small fishing shack out on the lake. As kids, we would make a beeline for it as often as we could. Far away from the prying eyes of overprotective parents. Somewhere we could be ourselves and explore without much interference the multiple rites of passages of boys growing up.
There we smoked our first cigarettes; sipped our first bourbon and above all, discussed the potential in our class year of all the girls that we admired, mainly from afar. For none of us had much confidence – nor experience – on that front. The shack held many fond memories for me until that one last time. It was the breakup of the group and things were never the same again.
Jim started it all off and really, thinking back, he was the one who finished it. The night we chose was dark and cold and it was the ultimate dare to stay over, especially as it was the 31st of October – All Hallows Eve. As the night wore on and the shadows behind the fire seemed to move in a more and more sinister way, everyone left. Except Jim, who was far hardier than the rest of us put together and he decided that it would be quite a feather in his cap with the girls to stay the whole night.
Being now on his own was all the stronger a case for him. So as I left him alone, for everyone else had shown their yellow streak before I did, he moved back into the shed and with a smile of success, waved me off.
No-one knew who the perpetrator actually was, though everyone in the group became suspects. At just after 2am, Jim was awakened by the most inhuman wailing, seemingly coming from outside the shack. He could see burning flares through the cracks in the old wooden shack and a small crowd seemed to have formed outside.
In the circumstances, his actions – or at least those he described to us after he came out of the hospital – were most courageous, but to many of us, what he did was just plain stupid, for he called them out and taunted them from inside the shack, thinking of it as protection for him.
As the fire took hold, he realised that he might have underestimated the crowd and just before the very combustible building collapsed, he opened the door and ran, but not before his own clothing took fire.
By jumping in the lake to douse the flames, Jim saved himself, but not without almost drowning. It was only the good fortune that the blaze was seem from the road that a random passer-by was able to haul him out and save his life.
We never met there again and the relationship between us all cooled such that we lost touch quite soon after we graduated.
In some ways, though I strenuously denied any involvement, I felt that we all rather abandoned Jim and my guilt, whilst completely unjust, had occasionally raised itself in my head over the years. I was the last to leave him. If only I had stayed, he might have never had the disfiguring burns that scarred his face forever.
The return trip to the now rebuilt fishing shack might be a moment where I could, as I had done many times, remind Jim that I was innocent of any wrongdoing. That I had just been scared – for good reason as it turned out.
Taking a big flashlight with me, I turned up my collar to the rain and wind as I left the motel and made my way over the lake. It was but a 10-minute drive and the road meandered along the shore till the unmade turnoff that led to the shack.
Once I got there, I was delighted to see a small bonfire burning and lighting up the area with a warming glow. I could see Jim huddled by it, with a beer from a six-pack on the picnic table close to the door.
“Hi, old buddy.” The voice came towards me, but I couldn’t make him out fully through the flickering light from the fire.
“It’s good of you to come and see me this one last time. Grab a beer.”
I sat opposite him and it was only when he pulled down the hood from his fleece that I realised dreadful mistake I’d made.
“You, you, you said that you weren’t dead.” Was all I could blurt out as I looked at what can only be described as the skeletal face opposite. An active, yet definitely dead skull was talking to me.
“That’s right I’m not dead. Now.” The face replied to me.
“Come inside. I have something to show you.”
I cannot say what drew me to follow, but that’s what I did.
As I got through the door, he – or should I say it – moved so quickly I could not react in time and before I knew it, I was bundled to the floor with a power I could not resist.
Despite my protestations, he was insistent with his assertions.
“I always knew it was you, here, all those years ago
“I never got over it you know. 2 failed marriages; financial ruin; the liver problems. All caused by you. On that once night, exactly sixty years ago tonight.”
The date had never crossed my mind to be honest and now that he said it, I was fearful of what might happen next.
“So, tonight, of all nights, I’m going to leave you here, just as you left me all those years ago.
“Let’s see how you like it.”
With that, he was gone. I never heard him after he walked out of the shack. I never saw him again.
I cannot bring myself to tell you what happened as we passed the hour of 2 am. I was not conscious to it after the waling and the screaming.
But, if you’ve anything you might regret or feel even the smallest amount of guilt about, I have an invitation for you, dear reader.
You see I’m off to another funeral once more. And you are very welcome to come, if you dare.
For this time, it’s mine.